An assembly line eatery is one that operates like an assembly line: customers enter into production at one end of a counter and direct a worker in the stepwise development of a meal from start to finish. In the past 20 years, such eateries have taken off, establishing a new hybrid of fast food and traditional eateries: fast casual eateries.
Assembly line eateries may be popular for the same reason Choose Your Own Adventure books were popular (remember those?). Catering to the human need for autonomy, both present sequences of choices that evolve in a unique, individualized experience. Whereas customization is possible in other kinds of restaurants (“Could I have potato salad instead of chips on the side?” “Is it possible to get that without mushrooms?”), assembly line eateries require it. For these eateries, customization is an expectation, not an exception. And with increasingly more common food allergies, intolerances and dietary restrictions, it’s comforting to feel that your individual needs aren’t a hassle for the waiter, a liability for the restaurant, or an insult to the dish’s integrity. In choosing your own literary or culinary adventure, you’re not just reading a book or eating some food — you’re reading your book; having your food.
But while they require choice, assembly line eateries do so in a way that is simple, so as not to overwhelm. Choices are grouped as manageable sets of decisions, rather than as endless possibilities. Customers address these choices one set at a time, while proceeding down the line, rather than as all at once.
And both the eateries and the books offer a sense of progression as the choices are made. Whether indicated by your position on line or the number of pages left in the book, both provide a means of anticipating how many choices you have made and how many more you will have to make. This feedback is comforting for a ravenous stomach or mind. “Only one more topping left to choose, and then I’ll have my burrito bowl.” “I still have 200 pages left, so the adventure isn’t over yet.” In allowing for the creation of expectations that are more likely to be fulfilled or surpassed than disappointed, assembly line eateries and Choose Your Own Adventure books are satisfying.
Chipotle is perhaps the most notable example of an assembly line eatery, and provides insight into what makes this restaurant format so successful. Since 1993, Chipotle has exploded into more than 2,000 national and international locations, becoming one of America’s fastest-growing restaurants.
Subway, opened in 1965, could also be considered one. Customers follow the progress of a worker assembling a sandwich or salad. And despite its enormous success, Subway didn’t see the same immediate, explosive growth that Chipotle saw when it opened in 1993. What worked so well for the Mexican Grill that didn’t for Subway? Perhaps people simply prefer burritos to subs. Perhaps it was due to the help of a McDonald’s investment. Or perhaps, in addition to its assembly line format, Chipotle’s attitude towards food, epitomized by its “food with integrity” slogan, created a necessary distinction between preexisting fast food chains and emerging fast casual eateries.
Chipotle advertises its use of locally grown, organic, sustainable ingredients, as well as the freshness and quality of their preparation. Their commitment to “cultivating a better world,” protecting the health of animals, the planet and their customers, starkly contrasts the questionable sourcing and preparation of fast food ingredients. But while Chipotle spends more on ingredients than most fast food chains, it doesn’t correspondingly charge more for its food. In this way, Chipotle caters not towards time-pressed customers, but also health- and environmentally-conscious ones — those looking for a fast casual, rather than a fast food, experience.
Subway, meanwhile, seems to fall more in the fast food category. It assembles its food in front of the customer, but does not cook it, nor does it place as much emphasis on the quality of its ingredients as Chipotle does. Thus, the assembly line format itself may not be responsible for Chipotle’s success: rather, it seems the assembly line, coupled with reassurance about the quality of what is being assembled.
Surely Chipotle’s emphasis on customer focus (going to great lengths to make reparations with customers after its food poisoning outbreak), simple menu and sleek, modern design have also contributed to its success. The customer focus and simple menu ensure that customers get food in as short a time as possible, adopting the quickness of fast food chains. The open, glossy, stainless steel design elements add ambiance and character, similar to the emphasis on ambiance in a traditional restaurant. In this sense, fast casual eateries like Chipotle are a food baby of both fast food and traditional eateries.
The Chipotle mission, model, and design have spawned various adaptations. Opening in 2011, Chipotle’s own ShopHouse Kitchen features Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian and Singaporean-inspired food. These foods are prepared primarily with organic and non-GMO ingredients, as well as antibiotic- and hormone-free meats. Expanding on Chipotle’s original concept, ShopHouse also caters more towards customers with dietary restrictions, emphasizing an entirely dairy-free and almost entirely wheat- and gluten-free menu. It also towards those with a sweet tooth, offering a dessert option.
Independent of the Chipotle franchise, the New York-based Indikitch spices things up with an Indian take on assembly line eateries. Since 2014, it’s been serving up ingredients without GMOs, preservatives, or hormones in a space that strikingly resembles the stainless steel and openness of Chipotle. The Hummus & Pita co., founded in 2012, is another New York-based assembly line eatery. In a space that is itself eco-friendly, with recycled wallpaper and tables made from bowling alley wood, it offers Mediterranean cuisine. And in 2015, Pokéworks brought Hawaiian poké to California and New York, emphasizing its commitment to providing high-quality, sustainable ingredients.
With so many assembly line eateries cropping up, it’s only a matter of choosing which adventure to embark on for your next meal.